The Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus A330-300 seats 297 passengers. But when the aircraft with the registration number 4R-ALR flew from Colombo to Sydney on March 21, 2021, there were just nine passengers on board and seven crew members, three of them pilots.

What must have been economically bitter for the airline also meant that fewer people were in danger that day.

Because something went wrong on flight UL 606 at the cruising altitude of 39,000 feet or almost 11,900 meters above the Indian Ocean, as the final report of the Sri Lankan Aviation Authority shows.

After the first flight segment, the captain went to rest in the cabin. The second man in the cockpit switched to the right-hand seat as the supervising pilot, and the first officer took the left-hand seat as the pilot flying.

The first officer was then served a meal but did not hand over control of the aircraft to his neighbor. And then the first officer’s sidestick received “a sharp nose down command”, as the report says in English, i.e. a clear command to descend. The autopilot disengaged and a warning went off.

The report does not explain exactly how this came about. But the A330 was now descending, eventually at a rate of 5700 feet or 1740 meters per minute. The pilot in the right-hand seat responded with his own inputs, but without saying that he was taking over the aircraft. He inadequately observed the loss of altitude and was not clear about who was in control of the plane, the report shows.

So the autopilot was engaged and then disengaged again. By the time the pilot managed to get the plane to climb again, it had lost 1,540 feet, or 469 meters.

What was particularly dangerous about the situation: The Airbus A330 was in RVSM airspace. The acronym stands for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum.

Here the difference in altitude between the flight corridors of different aircraft is sometimes only 1000 feet or 305 meters. The use of the autopilot is mandatory.

The pilots did not independently provide a report on the incident after the flight. The airline only realized what had happened by analyzing the flight data. The cockpit crew was ordered to ground for the duration of the investigation and, in the case of the first officer, also for the duration of a psychological examination.

The criticism in the final report is not only aimed at the pilots, but also at the airline. It is accused of a variety of failings, such as training the cockpit crew and the internal rules, which did not clearly stipulate that a pilot must hand over control of the aircraft during meals.

This article was written by Timo Nowack

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The original of this article “Airbus incident over ocean: Pilot gets food, then A330 rushes dangerously” comes from aeroTelegraph.